For nearly anyone who has taken a college-level English survey course, the Norton Anthology of English Literature is a familiar publication. The ubiquitous compilation is Norton’s bestselling anthology, with around 8 million copies in print, and at over 6,000 pages it is one of its longest. But a recently-published book and DVD about its founder, Prof. M.H. Abrams — Cornell’s Class of 1916 Professor of English Literature Emeritus — focuses as much on his modesty, humor and influential contribution to University policy, as on his creation of the canonical volume.
Published at the University by The Internet-First University Press, the newly released book and video, M.H. Abrams at Cornell University, is a collection of documents, interviews and news articles chronicling the history and accomplishments of Abrams, who is now 98 years old. Ranging from a 1956 Sun article about Abrams’ musical interests to a 2007 interview on literary theory for The Minnesota Review, the book’s range of sources reflect Professor Abrams’ eclectic and wide-ranging involvement with University activity.
“He’s been very broad-gauged; a citizen of the University,” said Prof. J. Robert Cooke Emeritus, former dean of faculty and the producer of the new book. “The pressure on faculty is to identify with your department and nothing more. It’s a rare individual who will risk going beyond that and spend time keeping the whole thing working.”
Included in the book is an example of Abrams’ interdisciplinary influence, a report titled The Academic Responsibilities of the Faculty. The document, published in the first Cornell Chronicle on September 25, 1969, is a proposition outlining Cornell faculty’s role in a post-Willard Straight Takeover environment. As a sponsor of the report, along with committee chair Hans Bethe, Abrams helped draft an argument for greater student involvement in University decisions that is now standard material in the Faculty Handbook.
“It was during the time of troubles when Willard Straight was occupied, which was followed by conventions of students in Barton Hall,” Abrams said. “There were many demands by student groups for students to take over the former responsibilities of faculty, and for the student voice to be heard.”
Abrams also noted that the report helped arbitrate a difficult standoff between students and faculty, two groups that were anxious about the future of campus civil rights and day-to-day University functionality.
“Hans Bethe was chair of the committee to draft a statement of faculty responsibilities that could be advocated,” Abrams said. “The document at the moment may sound like common sense, but we take it for granted. At the time it was voiced, it had a function to gather faculty together. It verbalized the very basic and obvious concerns of the faculty [and] served to allay a lot of the heat.”
“It’s really one of the seminal pieces that have affected who we are today,” Cooke said about the report. “And it’s unrelated to [Abrams’] department.”
In addition to the accompanying DVD, which includes lectures and interviews with Abrams, the book reflects a humor and humility that belie the celebrity and critical acclaim his published work has achieved. A 1999 interview with the Cornell Chronicle skips from literary criticism to the movie Shakespeare in Love.
“Fun. Good [Tom] Stoppard,” Abrams told the University, regarding the film. “But I didn’t recognize Shakespeare. They made him out to be a kind of 19th century esthete.”
As for the future of literature, Abrams had a more serious response.
“We are human, and nothing is more interesting than humanity,” Abrams told the University. “The appeal of literature is that it is so thoroughly a human thing — by, for and about human beings. If you lose that focus, you obviate the source of the power and permanence of literature.”
The book M.H. Abrams at Cornell University and its accompanying DVD are available for free online by the Internet-First University Press, and for purchase in hard copy at the Cornell Bookstore.
Original Author: Dan Freedman